CHAPTER XX


MUTUAL CONFIDENCES


"Betty! Oh, Betty! Betty!" Bob Henderson's familiar, friendly voice rose to a perfect crescendo of delight, and several passengers in the elevator smiled in sympathy.

Bobby Littell, who had entered the car, backed out hastily and the gate closed.

"Bobby, this is Bob Henderson," Betty performed a hasty introduction. "And, Bob, this is Roberta Littell, always called Bobby."

The latter held out an instant cordial hand to Bob.

"I know about you," she proclaimed frankly. "Betty thinks you are fine. We ought to be good friends, because our names are almost alike."

"I must talk to you, Bob," said Betty hurriedly. "Where are you going? Have you heard from Bramble Farm or Uncle Dick? How long have you been in Washington? Did you get out to Oklahoma?"

Bobby laughed and touched Betty on the arm.

"There's a seat over by the elevator," she suggested. "Why don't you sit there and talk? I'll come back and get you at a quarter to five—I want to get some new hair-ribbons for Esther."

"But you wanted to go up on the roof!" protested Betty, longing to talk to Bob and yet mindful of Bobby's first plans.

"Plenty of other days for that," was the careless response. "See you quarter to, remember. Good-by, Bob—though I'll see you again, of course."

She disappeared into a down elevator, and Betty and Bob sat down on the oak settle in the corridor.

"Wasn't it lucky we met you!" exclaimed Betty, getting a good look at the boy for the first time. "Seems to me you're thinner, Bob. Are you all right?"

"Couldn't be better!" he assured her, but she noticed there were rings under his eyes and that his hands, white enough now in contrast to the tan which still showed at his wrists, were perceptibly thinner. "Fact is, I work in this building, Betty. Kind of junior clerk for a man on the fourth floor, substituting while his clerks are away on vacation. Hale got me the place."

Betty told him of her interview with the old bookshop man, and Bob listened intently.

"So that's how you heard about Oklahoma," he commented. "You could have knocked me down with a feather when you said it. I guess Hale forgot I was working here—he really is dreadfully absent-minded—or else he thought you weren't to be trusted with so important a secret. He's as queer as they make 'em, but he was very good to me; couldn't seem to take enough pains to trace out what he knew of my mother's people."

Bob went on to explain that his money had given out and that he had to work in order to get together enough to pay his fare out to the West and also to board himself and pay for some new clothes. Betty guessed that he was scrimping closely to save his wages, though she did not then suspect what she afterward learned to be true, that he was trying to live on two meals a day, and those none too bountiful. Bob had a healthy boy's appetite, and it took determination for him to go without the extra meal, but he had the grit to stick it out.

"When Bobby comes back you must go with us and meet Mrs. Littell," observed Betty. "She'll want to take you home to dinner. Oh, Bob, they are the loveliest people!"

Bob shifted his foot so that the patch on one shoe was hidden.

"I'll go with you to meet her on one condition," he said firmly. "I won't go to dinner anywhere to-night—that's flat, Betty. My collar isn't clean. And who are the Littells?"

That led to long explanations, of course, and Betty told in detail how she had left Bramble Farm, of the mix-up at the Union Station, and her subsequent friendship with the hospitable family. She also told him of Mr. Gordon's sudden trip to Oklahoma and his almost inexplicable silence, but kept to herself her worry over this silence and as to her own future if it continued. She gave him the latest news of the Benders and the Guerins and handed over the two letters from these friends she happened to have in her purse that he might read and enjoy them at his leisure. In short, Betty poured out much of the pent-up excitement and doubt and conjecture of the last few weeks to Bob, who was as hungry to hear as she was to tell it.

"They certainly are fine to you!" he exclaimed, referring to the Littells. "There isn't another family in Washington, probably, who would have been as kind to you. I think you'll hear from your uncle soon, Betty. Lots of times these oil wells, you know, are miles from a railroad or a post-office. You take that Mr. Littell's advice—he sounds as if he had a heap of common sense. And whatever they've done to you, you're looking great, Betty. Pretty, and stylish and—and different, somehow."

Betty blushed becomingly. She had brightened up amazingly during her stay in Washington, despite her anxiety about her uncle and, lately, Bob. The serene and happy life the whole household led under the roof of "Fairfields" had a great deal to do with this transformation, for the bickering and pettiness of the daily life at Bramble Farm had worn Betty's nerves insensibly. She tried to say something of this to Bob.

"I know," he nodded. "And, Betty, what do you think? I met the old miser right here in Washington!"

Instinctively Betty glanced behind her.

"You didn't!" she gasped. "Where? Did he—was he angry?"

"Sure! He was raving," replied Bob cheerfully. "What do you think he accused me of this time? Stealing an unrecorded deed! Did you know anything about that, Betty?"

Betty described the incident of her delayed letter and told of the morning she had picked it from the floor and hung up Mr. Peabody's coat.

"He insists you took it, but I never believed it for one moment," she said earnestly. "I'm sure Mrs. Peabody doesn't either; and I didn't think Mr. Peabody really thought you took it. You know how he flies into a temper and accuses any one. But if he came down to Washington and said pointblank to you that you took it, it looks as if he thought you did, doesn't it?"

"You wouldn't have any doubts if you had heard him," Bob said grimly. "He had me by the coat collar and nearly shook my teeth loose. Perhaps he expected to shake the deed out of my pocket. What on earth does he think I could do with his old deed, anyhow?"

Betty explained the transaction of the lots as Mrs. Peabody had explained it to her, and Bob understood that the farmer, basing his reasoning on his own probable conduct under similar conditions, suspected him of intended blackmail.

"How did you get away from him?" asked Betty presently. "Where did he shake you? Couldn't you call a policeman?"

"He wanted a policeman," said Bob, chuckling. "He walked me about two blocks, hunting for a cop. Then a crowd collected and I decided it was better to wriggle out, and I did, leaving the only coat I owned in his hands. But I never go out without looking up and down the street first. I don't want to be arrested, even if I didn't steal anything. Besides, with Peabody, I have a feeling that he might be able to prove whatever he wanted to prove."

"You've bought a new suit," said Betty irrelevantly. "You don't suppose Mr. Peabody will stay in Washington, hunting for you, do you?"

"If he doesn't have to pay too much for board he will," said Bob. "That deed evidently means a lot to him. I wish I could find it, if only to send him back to the farm. I'll bet a cookie it's in some of his coat pockets this minute, and he hanging down here to nab me. Sure, I bought a new suit—had to, before I could get a job. By the way, Betty, if you need some cash——" He patted his pocket invitingly.

"Oh, I have enough," Betty assured him hastily. "I'd feel better if the Littells would only let me spend a little money. Why, what's this?"

For Bob had put a small white envelope into her reluctant hands.

"That's the loan," he said gravely. "I've carried it just like that for days, ready to give you the first time I saw you. You're a great little pal, Betty. If it hadn't been for you, I never should have got to Washington."

Betty put the money away in her purse, conscious that it meant self-denial on the lad's part, but knowing that she would hurt his pride irreparably did she refuse to take it.

"Have you written to Mr. Bender?" she prodded gently. "You promised to, Bob."

The police recorder had taken a warm interest in Bob, and Betty knew from his wife's letters that he was anxious to hear from him.

"I will write," promised Bob. "I'm tired at night, Betty, and that's the truth. I never seem to get enough sleep. But I will write, perhaps this Sunday."

"Well, folks, all talked out?" called Bobby's gay voice, and she came smilingly up to them. "Betty, mother and the girls are downstairs in the car. I met them on the way and they know all about our meeting with Bob. Mother wants him to come home to dinner."

Bob replied that while he appreciated Mrs. Littell's kindness, he could not come that night, and, as he followed Bobby to the elevator, gave Betty a significant glare which, correctly interpreted, read: "Don't forget what I told you!"

Mrs. Littell took to Bob at once, and the bevy of girls, simple and friendly and delightfully free from selfconsciousness, adopted him at once as Betty's friend and theirs. When the mother found that he could not be persuaded to come home with them that night—and Betty loyally supported him, mindful of the collar—she would not be satisfied until she had arranged for him to spend the next Saturday afternoon and Sunday with them at "Fairfields," promising to send the car in for him at noon, so that he might have lunch with them.

"Betty hasn't tried her riding habit on once," said Mrs. Littell when Bob had promised to come. "Perhaps when you come out the girls will find time to give her her delayed riding lesson. They've been doing Washington pretty thoroughly."

This reminded Betty of Bobby's plan to visit the roof of the office building, and Bob had the same thought.

"Couldn't you all come in to-morrow morning and let me take you up on the roof?" he asked them. "The view is really worth while, and I'm up there anyway half the morning looking after my employer's experiments. He is head of a dye house, and is always trying the effect of sunlight on new shades."

So it was decided that the girls should come in again in the morning. Then they drove away home, and Bob went on his errand. Luckily he had been told that he need not return to the office that afternoon after its completion, or he might have found himself involved in a maze of explanations and excuses for his lengthy absence.